“Something’s wrong,” he whispered, laying the bird down on the table. It slid out of his palms, its head bending backwards so the nape of its neck nearly touched the mantle beneath. The wings were fashioned like a cocoon, tucking the body away, the white feathers neither ruffled nor out of place as Wynn let it roll onto the counter. Audrey leaned forward over her homework and touched the bird anxiously, her index finger just barely pressing against its mangled right leg.
“Where did you find him?” Audrey asked, looking up at Wynn. He rubbed his nose with his sleeve and shrugged.
“I think Kaiser killed him.”
Audrey nodded, turning to find the dog asleep in his bed behind her, his snout perched up on the ledge of the stair, whimpering mid-dream. It was her last day and Kaiser decided to kill Wynn’s only other friend. She sighed, brushing the hair out from her face. “I’m so sorry Wynn,” Audrey said, awkwardly pulling at her the sleeves on her sweater. This was his third bird that year. “Let’s find him a place then,” she said, picturing where to set another cardboard box grave in his mother’s rose bed.
“We have to bury him,” Wynn said. He slid his sleeve up his arm and checked one of the watches on his wrist. Reaching forward, he pulled the leg of the bird upwards and nodded a few times, as if checking the pulse. “3:55,” he said, articulating each number, the three whistling in the gap between his front teeth. He took off one of the watches on his arm, revealing a white mark of untanned skin. He broke it against the table, the glass cracking, and hands freezing beneath.
“You want me to write it down, too?”
“You have to, in case his parents need to come and…”
“Identify the body?”
“Yes.” Wynn gave her a toothy grin. He picked up the watch off the table and tied it back around his wrist. “To remember,” he said, pointing to the watch.
“I know,” Aubrey replied. She pushed herself up off the counter and stretched. “How about we find Butters a special place down the road?” she suggested.
“We never get to go down there.”
“Just this last time, okay?” Audrey slid her pencil into the crease of her textbook and shut it. She gathered her keys and phone from off the counter and slid on her jacket. “Go get your coat, it’s cold out.”
“Cool,” Wynn said smiling and spun on his heel, racing down the hallway.
The fall weather was nearing its end, the leaves turning into broken pieces on the sidewalk like crumpled bits of paper, damp from the morning’s drizzle of lazy rainfall. Wynn walked next to Audrey, exaggerating his footsteps to mock her own, his clunky rain boots dragging along the pavement as he clutched a mason jar under his arm. Audrey carried the bird in a small gift bag, the outside reading Feliz Navidad! in assaulting red letters. As they neared the entrance of the trail, Wynn reached out and grabbed Audrey’s hand. They stopped and Audrey pulled Wynn back so she could eye the trail map, which looped around in a giant figure eight, ending at the park on the other side of the neighborhood.
“I think I know a good spot,” she said.
“I don’t know any spots.”
“I’ll lead the way then.” They started down the trail head, hopping over wet logs and puddles of mud until they reached an overhanging of trees.
“They’re naked,” said Wynn, pointing upwards towards the branches.
“Only a little.” Audrey let out a breath, and looked over towards Wynn. “All right, I’m a little scared, how about you?” She nodded towards the path. “It’s pretty dark in there.”
“I’m not scared. It’s too light out for the beast to be out anyway.” He took a few steps forward and looked back. “C’mon, we have to bury him before it gets dark.”
Audrey followed behind him into the embrace of the naked trees limbs, her legs clumsy as she trudged through the moss, leaves and dirt kicked up from others. She was exhausted. It pressed down on her shoulders and sat with her like a weighted blanket, with the comfort only crippling anxiety could give her. She glanced over towards the break in the trees, sprouting from the ground like tombstones, humming along with the wind as it swept between them. Shaking her head, she looked up towards Wynn who was hopping from rock to stick, making a game out of it. She smiled, and jogged up towards him ignoring the voices nipping at her heels. Wynn turned around as she jumped down next to him, squishing the mud beneath her boots.
“Mom said you’re leaving next year.” Wynn hopped across the rock bed, teetering back and forth as the rocks moved beneath his weight. Audrey followed, her arms tucked tightly in her jacket, the bag hanging from her pinky finger as she made her way across.
“I am,” she said quietly, the flow of the creek nearly drowning out her words.
“I’ve got places to be that aren’t here,” Audrey said, attempting to smile over at Wynn who ignored her. “I have my own migration to get on with,” she added, looking down at Butters wrapped in the cloth in the bag swinging beside her.
“You aren’t leaving,” he said, pausing to suck in a breath, “because of me, right?”
Audrey stopped and frowned. Wynn was only a few paces ahead of her. “Who told you that?”
“No one,” he called back, still looking down at his muddy boots. Audrey ran to catch up, kicking up pebbles on the trail as she dragged her feet, the bag hitting her leg with every stride. She reached forward and held onto Wynn’s shoulder, tugging him a bit so he would look up at her.
“I wish I could stay longer,” Audrey said reassuringly. He raised his eyebrows in confusion.
“Why don’t you?”
“I just have to go home for a little while,” she said, dropping her hand from his shoulder.
“I’m sick.” Audrey paused as the trail split into two, and checked the sign buried behind some debris and a fallen branch. “So I’m going home to try to get better.” She gestured to the right and pulled Wynn along beside her. She jumped over a mud puddle. Wynn watched reproachfully, then stomped his way through, the water splashing up onto his torn jeans, the mud caking the sole of his boots.
“I helped my mom make chicken soup. We can make you some of that,” he said, twisting his boots into the mud, the farting sound of the air bubbles making him giggle. “It always helps me.”
“It’s not that kind of sick,” Audrey said. “Hey, stop.” She pulled on his wrist dragging him out of the mud. He tried to pull back. “You wish you were stronger than me,” she said, reaching forward to grab his other wrist. He laughed and twisted his arm out of her grasp. He ran up ahead, nearly dropping the Mason jar which hung out of his jacket pocket. Stopping he turned around, waiting for Aubrey to catch up. It was getting colder.
“What kind of sick is it then?” Wynn asked. Audrey hummed raking her mind for a good example. She wanted to tell him it felt oddly like falling, as if she had been living in limbo for a while now. She watched him walk ahead of her, his knees wobbling, mimicking that of a deer. He amplified each movement, a kind of joke to ensure the mud made the funny sounds he wanted.
“You remember that time your Mom and Dad didn’t come to your soccer game and you got really sad and you wouldn’t talk to me?” Audrey asked, hesitating between each word as it formed in her mouth. She remembered the look on his face after he scored the first goal, searching in the bleachers for their familiar faces, but only finding hers. She remembered the tears while she watched him through her rearview mirror in the back seat as they drove home, his face illuminated as they passed streetlamps, his brow furrowed and nose red.
“Yeah,” Wynn said quietly.
“Well, I get that sad a lot.”
“It is.” Audrey bent down to pick up a giant stick. She poked him in the butt with it, making him jump forward. He turned back and stuck his tongue out at her, his lips pink and cracked from the cold. She handed him the stick. “But, remember how we got hot chocolate after that game and you felt better?”
“It was because it had marshmallows.” Wynn grinned wickedly and let out a hoot, cupping his hands around his mouth which formed a big O.
“Exactly.” Audrey let out a similar sound, startling Wynn who tensed up ahead. “Well, for me, going home will be like getting a big cup of hot chocolate.”
“And then you’ll feel better and come back?”
“Good,” Wynn said definitively. He chucked the stick into a bush beside him. “Because I don’t want a new nanny.”
“Why not? You might end up liking them.”
“They won’t be able to draw dragons like you.” Wynn flung the stick into the overhanging trees. It broke in half and fell into a clutter of dead bushes. “And they won’t know how to play Minecraft.”
“You don’t know that,” Audrey said. She looked off towards the trees that enveloped the two of them with their mangled branches. Something moved behind the trees, a figure fading and brightening through the coverage of the sun. She stopped and watched it. It dissipated with the next ray that fell through the thicket.
“What are you looking at?” Wynn pulled at Aubrey’s jacket. She glanced down to see Wynn staring off in the direction she had been looking towards, squinting his eyes as he tried to focus. Her head pounded, a residual migraine burning beneath the cloud of her medication.
“Nothing,” she said reassuringly. “It’s nothing.” She pushed him forward as they continued their trek, the path narrowing between the trees. Wynn stopped and pointed at a lump of something on the trail. He rushed forward, sliding on the ground in front of the animal.
“What is it?”
“Toad,” Wynn shouted, reaching for the jar in his pocket. “Do you think it will fit?”
“Let’s see,” Audrey said. She got on her knees and cupped her hands over the toad, which hopped into her palms. Wynn held the jar out in front of her as she slid the toad in. Disgruntled, it repositioned itself at the bottom of the jar and croaked. “Perfect fit. What do you want to name it?”
“Yeah, we learned that word this week when we went to the zoo,” Wynn said. He stared greedily at the toad sitting at the bottom of the glass and grinned, the toad looking unpleasant and a little annoyed in its new glass cage.
“I like it.” Audrey said. She pushed herself up and brushed off the leaves that stuck to her knees, which were now wet from the ground. “C’mon, we’re close. It’s just off the path up here.” Wynn got up and held the jar carefully against his chest, walking alongside Audrey, whose strides were growing longer as they neared the break in the trees. “Here, let me hold Stool while you slide down.” She reached for the jar, which Wynn handed over without hesitation.
“Don’t drop him.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” She held onto Wynn’s hand as they slid down the side of the hill, slipping down with an array of dead leaves and broken twigs; like a mini avalanche. At the bottom, Audrey turned and helped balance Wynn, whose boots were now more brown than blue. They hobbled across another rock bed to a small clearing. The grass, still showing a hint of green, opened up into a small circle, padded down from activity, showing no sign of any fallen leaves, but rather a small circle of mushrooms, budding up from the Earth.
“Fairy circle,” Wynn whispered, his eyes wide. He carefully tiptoed around it, gripping the jar tightly against his jacket, and glanced behind him slightly paranoid as they neared another break in the trees. Up ahead, the clearing broke into a small pond with an overhang, water dripping down the sides of the rock into the mossy water. Wynn stopped next to Audrey, who was hugging herself, her eyes shut, nose flared.
“Close your eyes and listen for a minute,” Audrey said. He shut his eyes tightly, knuckles white as he gripped Stool in his jar. It smelled vaguely of moss and damp leaves, the smallest drip of water breaking the silence as it slid down the rock and fell quietly into the pond, forming a ring.
Wynn opened his eyes and grinned. “This is cool,” he said. “How did you find it?”
“I come down here a lot when I need some quiet time,” Audrey said, leaning down and picking up another stick half emerged from the pond. “I think we should put him here.” She pointed towards a particularly muddy spot near a tree, its roots twisting out and into the water, forming a cradle in the center.
“Butters is going to love it here.” Wynn grabbed a stick and helped Audrey dig a hole. They both eventually threw the sticks into the water and used their hands, letting the mud get underneath their fingernails and up their arms. Wynn was careful not to let it get on his watches. Once they were finished, Audrey took out the small lump from the gift bag, the bird now wrapped in linen found in Wynn’s bathroom cabinet. She handed him to Wynn who carefully set him down in the hole.
“Do you have anything you want to say?”
“No,” Wynn said quietly, squatting near the grave, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Here, I’ll say something,” Audrey said, breaking through the silence. “How about that?” Wynn nodded and stood up, checking the time on the second watch up from his wrist. He pushed down his sleeve and held up his hand against his forehead, the way his army men did.
Audrey cleared her throat. “We loved you Butters.” She glanced over at Wynn who held his formation. She smiled and did the same, furrowing her brow and deepening her voice. “You were a good soldier. And we hope you find a place to fly here.”
“Sir!” called out Wynn next to her. He jerked his hand away and placed it firmly at his side. Audrey sat down and began pushing the dirt over the bird, covering the white linen with leaves and worms until the bird was completely buried. “Now he can live here,” Wynn said as he pushed the last of the dirt over Butters. He packed it down with his palms. “And only we can come visit him.”
“We can come here when I get back,” Audrey said, sitting back. “If you want.” Wynn nodded in agreement and hummed a tune next to her that she didn’t recognize. She hummed a different one.
They reached the end of the trail promptly before nightfall, the trees leading out to a path towards a small wooden playscape. Wynn checked the watch on his right wrist and tapped it a few times, the minute hand stuck on the twelve. Audrey broke forward, Wynn trailing alongside her to keep up, hanging onto the gift bag that now held an unhappy Stool. When they stopped, Wynn dropped the bag and held onto his stomach, his breath visible in the cold, his face nearly as red as his collared shirt. Audrey raised her hands above her head and looked down, expanding her lungs to lessen her cramp. Wynn watched her for a moment before doing the same.
“I don’t think Kaiser will eat Stool,” Wynn said, catching his breath. He looked up towards Audrey and smiled, nodding to himself a few times.
“He probably tastes pretty gross,” Audrey replied. She made a face back at him.
“Yeah, he’s pretty squishy.” Wynn started walking towards the gravel, holding Audrey’s hand to pull her along. He stopped her at a table and pushed his sleeve up on his left arm, revealing the superhero watch Audrey had bought him. Carefully, he undid the notches and took it off of his forearm. “Just because it’s your last day,” he said.
“Here, let me just take the battery out.” Audrey held out her hand as Wynn dropped the watch in her palm. “That way you can still read the time.” She opened up the back and plucked out a circular piece. She shut it and handed it back to him. “Perfect.”
Wynn smiled, putting the watch back on. “It would be cool if breaking it could actually stop time.” He looked up at her. “But, then we could be the only ones to move, and everyone else would be frozen.”
“That would be pretty cool.”
Wynn stood up, handing the bag over to Audrey and jumped a few times towards the swing set. He squished the gravel under his boots, which were now cracking with drying mud. Pausing, he jumped back around. “Hey, I think I know how you can be happy.”
“How’s that?” Aubrey asked.
“Just be nice to people and plant a few trees.” He spun back around and sprinted off towards the swing set, leaving Audrey to hold onto Stool, who let out a muffled croak from inside the jar. She set him down and ran up behind Wynn, lifting him off the ground and cupping him in her arms like a baby. He screamed, trying to straighten out his legs from her grasp, but she held him tighter still. She dropped him down in front of the swing, his nose red from the cold, a trail running down to his lips which he sucked back up. “Do the thing where you run under me,” he said, gripping the chains, freezing his hands as he held onto the metal tightly. Audrey walked around behind him and pushed at his back a few times, Wynn swinging his legs forward in an exaggerated motion like she had taught him.
“All right, are you ready?” she called from behind him, counting under her breath with each push. One. Wynn flew forward, his legs sticking straight out, knees locked and hair whipping back behind him. Two. He held on, letting his head roll back so he could see Audrey upside down, his tongue sticking out, and eyes wild. Three. She sprinted underneath him, gripping the bottom of the seat as she ducked under his legs, pushing him as hard as she could as she ran out from under him. She turned on her heel to watch Wynn push back one more time on the swing, laughing as he swung forward towards Audrey. He lifted himself off the seat and rose in the air high above her, his arms outstretched in his white jacket as he screamed out something that she couldn’t quite understand.